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It’s Okay to Be Afraid

I am afraid of heights – you won’t see me going anywhere near the edge of a cliff. I am afraid of cars – you won’t see me biking ultra fast during rush hour, listening to music. I am afraid of getting hurt – you won’t see me dive into challenges while playing soccer. These fears have been serving me well and I am glad I have them.

I am also terrified of failure. I face that fear every day. What if I can’t make my business work? What if nobody wants the services we offer? What if I screw up the next project? That kind of fear can be paralyzing and demoralizing. It makes me want to stop, give up, run away. I can’t extinguish it. Nor should I try to.  

In my first post of the series I laid the foundation for how developing a growth mindset is essential for learning and getting better at things. Developing and staying in growth mindset, however, is no easy task; you will face obstacles along the way. The major one is fear. To proceed, you need to acknowledge and get to know your fears.

Fear may sabotage your personal and professional growth because it may keep you from the things you want to do. You want a promotion? Fear keeps you from talking to your boss. You want to change fields? Fear keeps you from exploring and talking to different people. You want to move to a different city or country? Fear keeps you in the same place. You want to take a plunge (into a new venture, new relationship)? Fear keeps you on the shore.

Quick science lesson: where does fear come from and why is it important?

Our amygdala, a part of our brain’s limbic system, produces fear. It plays an essential evolutionary purpose – it warns us of danger. If we encounter a grizzly bear, our amygdala immediately sends fear signals to grab our attention and get us to do something to save ourselves.

Fear is typically caused by one of four things: uncertainty, change, struggle, and unwanted attention (i.e. the audience staring at you when you are about to present). There is the fear of failure – what if I get fired from that new job? What if I my business fails? There is the fear of embarrassment – what if I mess up that presentation and people think I am stupid? Any time we are about to do something new or different, we may experience fear because we are coping with uncertainty, change, struggle or attention.

The problem with the amygdala is that it can’t distinguish between an existential threat (grizzly bear) and a work challenge (we are about to present in front of people). In the first case, fear is extremely useful. In the second, fear may hinder your personal and professional success.

So how do we cope with fear?

In short, become more aware and attuned to your fears and practice acceptance.  

We often hear that fear is bad, that we have to fight fear, be brave and fearless. That is, unfortunately, terrible advice. First of all, fear is not bad; quite on the contrary, it’s very important – as I mentioned above, it helps us stay alive! Secondly, you can’t defeat fear – if you fight it, you give it more fuel.

You have to reframe how you think about fear. You have to realize it’s a kind of compass, it’s a mechanism that guides you in life. If you let it guide you but NOT dominate every decision you make. You should strive to accept fear and use it to your advantage, not try to quash it.

Imagine you are in front of that grizzly bear and your friend yells at you from a safe distance “calm down, be fearless, it’s just a bear.” Would that be an appropriate response? Now imagine you are about to stand in front of 1,000 people and present your company’s latest product. When your colleague tells you “calm down, it’s just a crowd”, he is actually making it worse because he makes you resist the fear and fight it. The result? You end up in a full-blown panic attack. What your colleague should be telling you is “it’s okay to be anxious. Everyone in your place would be. Take a deep breath and remember how hard you worked and how much you prepared for this moment.” Acknowledge, accept, take a deep breath and proceed.

Do not let fear make decisions for you (unless you are in a life threatening situation).

First, remember the origins and causes of fear. Second, remember that fear is an evolutionary mechanism that has helped humankind survive over the ages. Reframe how you think about fear: you can use fear to guide you, not let it ruin you. Succumbing to a fear may mean you run away from a challenge. I will call in sick and have someone else do that presentation. You may feel comfortable, safe, relieved when you do that, but in the long run, how will you learn and grow if you always stay in your comfort zone and evade any challenges that comes your way?  

Fear will always tell you something useful. What you do with that information can be the difference between living the life you want and living the life you will sooner or later regret.

What’s ONE fear that’s holding you back from pursuing something you want? What does it tell you? How will you use that knowledge moving forward? Think of your own experiences or observations of others. And share below, if you are not afraid…


To learn more about coping with fear, read Seth Godin’s short article on quieting the lizard brain and check out this video on overcoming fear.

Zarko Palankov seeks ways to connect ideas, people and organizations, to create platforms for learning, collaboration and growth, and to fundamentally change the leadership paradigm: how we work together toward a common vision. He is building a social venture, LeadIN, that grows the individual and collective leadership of people and organizations. LeadIN brings people together to learn, share, and grow their leadership.

Feel free to contact Zarko at zarko@lead-in.co or follow LeadIN on Twitter @leadincommunity.


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